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Why We Never Feel Successful Enough

On the Inner and the Outer Scorecards, And How We Measure Ourselves

Of my many shortcomings, one of them is surely that I care quite a bit what other people think of me. In fact, there are times when I care too much about what others think of me. So much so, that I make decisions based on how others might view me, rather than my values or priorities.

In his book The Snowball, the oft-quoted Warren Buffett poses an interesting question:

The big question about how people behave is whether they’ve got an Inner Scorecard or an Outer Scorecard. It helps if you can be satisfied with an Inner Scorecard. I always posed it this way. I say: ‘Lookit. Would you rather be the world’s greatest lover, but have everyone think you’re the world’s worst lover? Or would you rather be the world’s worst lover but have everyone think you’re the world’s greatest lover?’ Now that’s an interesting question.

Interesting question, right? Most of us — myself included — want both of these things. We want to be smart, productive, fit, etc. — but we also want people to see us that way as well. In fact, often times, we will place way more emphasis on people thinking we are doing well, then on actually doing well.

What drives this? Well in part, our own tendency to jump to conclusions on limited data makes us think that how others appear tells the whole story. But that’s a mistake.

Front Stage and Backstage

A great illustration of this comes courtesy of Ross Grant:

Social media has made access to other people’s lives incredibly easy for us….Never before have we had this kind of ability to broadcast what’s going on in our lives to the entire world with the click of a button.
BUT WE MUST REMEMBER, what we are seeing is ONLY a person’s ‘front stage’.
Behind the scenes that person’s ‘backstage’ is no doubt just as chaotic, if not more so than ours….
As human beings, we forget this — we only see the ‘front stage’ and fool ourselves into thinking that the person who shouts the loudest about success must have a wonderful life.

I make this mistake all of the time. I am constantly looking at other peoples’ front stages, and judging my own backstage against that. Other people seem to have it together, have confidence, and float through life. But that’s their front stage. I have no idea what’s going on behind the curtain of the appearance they curate for the public.

When you think about it, it’s impossible to see your own front stage as others do. You can look at all the pictures and videos of yourself that you like, but you will always insert your in-depth backstage knowledge in your assessment. It’s like an editor watching the film she worked on. As good as it looks on the screen, she can’t help but remember how messy it all was. She’ll never see the film like the fresh-eyed audience does.

Living Internally

So we can’t really benefit from trying judge how we’re doing by looking at others. We also shouldn’t worry so much about what others think about how we’re doing. Success, it seems, is more internal than external. It’s not about whether you’re running as fast and keeping up with others. It’s about whether or not you’re hitting the mile markers that you’ve mapped out for yourself.

What’s more, when we’re making a map for our lives, we have to strike a delicate balance when figuring out our intended destination. To a certain extent, we can’t avoid relying on others to help us map out our life’s journey. But we can’t rely too much on others, because when that happens, we lose our internal guidance — which is what Buffet was talking about.

In a sense, when we live by an external scorecard, it’s like being the driver of a car and allowing every passenger to shout directions at you — and you follow them all. If you figure out where you’re going, and learn to trust your sense of direction, you need not listen to the backseat drivers. Know where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, and keep your eyes on the road. The backseat drivers can shout directions until they’re blue in the face, but you aren’t listening to them.

Yes, it’s easier said than done. It always is. But it’s important to read and write about the hard things. It is hard to live by a completely internal scorecard. It is hard to remember that what you see in public is not how people are in private. But you need to remember these things. So I’ll repeat them, in a list — because we love lists, don’t we?

  1. Live by an internal scorecard, rather than an external one.
  2. Don’t compare what people look like on the outside to how you feel on the inside.

Simple enough.

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